Eric Lewis

Improving upon Aristotle: Kant's Superior Treatment of Happiness in Morality

As two of history’s most influential ethicists, Immanuel Kant and Aristotle handle happiness in ways that conflict with one another. The conflicts between their respective ethics have engendered much debate over whose ethical system is more tenable. In this paper I discuss the definition and handling of happiness in Kant’s and Aristotle’s ethics, and I argue that Kant better understands happiness and therefore gives it a more defensible treatment in his moral framework. Kantian and Aristotelian ethics, though ultimately incompatible, share some rich similarities, which I explicate. They disagree, however, over the proper place of the highest good (Kant’s summum bonum, Aristotle’s eudaimonia) within the framework of morality. At first, eudaimonia and the summum bonum appear quite similar. The summum bonum, however, is a more complete formulation of the highest good—it posits happiness (in Kant’s sense of the term) as a necessary corollary to virtue, whereas Aristotle’s eudaimonia asserts only that virtue yields a noble sense of satisfaction. Aristotle does not guarantee Kant’s brand of happiness but instead claims that external prosperity and general well-being tend to be present in virtuous persons. Further, Kant argues that although the highest good is the ultimate end that we desire, it does not follow that the highest good is a proper moral motive. Kantian perspective, Aristotle’s concern with personal happiness results in a system of prudential advice rather than one of universalizable moral motives founded on matters of goodness without qualification or, indeed, ethics itself.